Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Hand-Reared Boy

Another lovely Corgi cover. This is the first of a trilogy of which I read the second first (click on the label Aldiss [down the side] for my posting about it and to see another fine cover). That one I hadn’t heard of but this I had -- in fact I had the impression it was once notorious so I was expecting it to be just hilariously filthy, since I believed that was its reputation.

It was hilarious, and ‘filthy’ isn’t a concept we use any more but if we did it would be -- but not just. I thought it was an excellent novel -- or perhaps in reality an autobiography. The taboo (in 1970) topic of masturbation was prominent, as was regular sex, and some of the book is indeed very funny, not least his absurd, sad, social-climbing mother, but the book is serious and sensitive. A middle-class boy, son of a bank manager in some dull Midlands city, goes to school and then to public school, and of course is preoccupied with sex -- first with the maid but most notably with the school’s new matron, Sister Traven. But the sex and the love are seen in the context of the boy’s whole character and psychology -- and his doubts about whether his parents love him. Alone at the end, it’s his dad he wants to be there.

The book ends straight after he’s left school and is working in London in the first months of the war. It’s good as a bildungsroman (formation novel) but no less as an account of an era, the atmosphere of 1939 caught memorably, as well as that of suburban semi life in the mid-thirties. It’s probably absurd to say that I found it so genuine that it read as autobiography -- but that’s what, at least in the boy’s inner states, I took it to be.

Concurrently I was reading an actual autobiography that covered the same period and was also set in the suburbs, and I found myself constantly mixing the two stories up.

In Paul Vaughan’s Something in Linoleum his family moves from inner London, along with 1.5m others in the 20s and 30s, to Outer London, in their case to the new suburb of New Malden (near Kingston and a walk away from me in Surbiton). A new school was opened to cope, Raynes Park County School, a grammar school whose head, John Garrett, was co-editor with his friend (and once lover?) W.H. Auden of The Poet’s Tongue, an anthology for schools that I remember from Bradford Grammar School. Vaughan went there in the first intake. Garrett, a homosexual with a camp Oxford voice and a contempt for suburban values, used his literary connections (Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, A.L. Rowse -- who wrote a poem about him) to put the school on the map. Prizes on Speech Day were given out not by your usual local dignitary but Lord David Cecil and TS Eliot. The school play was reviewed in the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. Intellectually, it seems he was rather mediocre and no writer, and in the classroom was ineffectual. In this respect he’s unlike the person he constantly reminded me of (though I never met him), Arthur Harvey, an early head of English at Walworth School.

The art master was Claude Rogers, a future member of the Euston Road School and well represented now in the Tate Collection. I particularly like the painting on the cover, The Painting Lesson, and wonder where one can see his portrait of John Garrett.

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